With their ace on the mound and their season on the line, the one thing the Blue Jays didn’t plan for was the unexpected unravelling of Hyun Jin Ryu.
The rotation’s rock all season long, Ryu simply didn’t have it in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series. Now, just 27 hours after the first pitch of their 2020 postseason run was thrown, the Blue Jays’ season is over with the Rays advancing on Wednesday’s 8-2 win.
“I’m proud of my kids for making it to this point,” said manager Charlie Montoyo after the loss. “It’s obvious that the Rays are a pretty good team, that’s why they’re a pick to go to the World Series and that’s obvious.
“In this series, we didn’t hit and we only scored three runs, so it’s not enough to beat that team. Besides that, I’m proud of my team and proud of my kids. It’s a great experience. I told them to enjoy the ride, it’s a learning experience.”
Ryu’s Game 2 assignment was the story of the week, with Matt Shoemaker being handed Game 1 in front of the ace who’d signed the four-year, $80 million deal over the offseason. Shoemaker held up his part of the deal, but even with the added day of rest that both Ryu and the Blue Jays wanted, the left-hander looked like he was missing something.
That extra day of rest has typically left Ryu with a touch more velocity, allowing him to creep into the lower 90s with his fastball, but that wasn’t the case in Game 2. Ryu’s fastball lacked life early, so he was forced to resort to his cutter, which he threw more times (17) than any other pitch. As Ryu moved from Plan A to Plans B and C without finding the solution, it was clear that the answer just wasn’t there.
By the time Ryu walked off the mound, he had allowed seven runs (three earned) over just 1 2/3 innings on eight hits, including a pair of home runs. He didn’t get much help, either. Just before Hunter Renfroe launched a game-changing grand slam, Manuel Margot hit a ground ball to Bo Bichette. The play should have ended the inning, but Bichette bobbled the routine play and allowed Margot to reach. If you want to point to one moment that could have changed the course of this game, that might be the one.
“It’s disappointing to end my season like that defensively, for sure,” Bichette said. “Both games, I felt I had good at-bats. Obviously not good enough, but it’s disappointing. It will be a tough pill to swallow defensively, but I’ll just use it to get better.”
It was a particularly difficult end for Ryu, whose 2020 season should be remembered more for his excellence in the regular season than its ugly ending. Ryu posted a 2.69 ERA over his 12 starts and was the steady hand for a rotation that battled injuries and poor performance. By the end, following his seven-inning, 100-pitch win over the Yankees to help the Blue Jays clinch this postseason spot, he was the team’s MVP.
“I don’t want the past two games to taint all the efforts and hardships that we went through as a team during the regular season,” Ryu said through an interpreter. “We didn’t have a place to call home. Buffalo was a home stadium for us, but for all of us, it pretty much felt like being on the road throughout the season. I’m glad my teammates were able to go through it, and to make the postseason was great.”
Ryu was also “a little sore,” as Montoyo put it after that game vs. the Yanks. The extra days of rest have typically given Ryu’s body a chance to recover, which goes hand in hand with the added velocity. Even though Ryu isn’t lighting up radar guns, this is still a 33-year-old pitcher with plenty of innings under his belt and a long injury history.
“I physically felt good, but I did notice that my velocity dipped,” Ryu said, “especially my fastball. I think that the [location] mistakes hurt me more than the velocity itself. In that first inning, they were getting hits off of all my secondary pitches, which made the game extremely difficult for me.”
As the Rays celebrated on their home turf at Tropicana Field, many of the Blue Jays stayed right where they were, in the dugout and staring straight ahead. Many of them were seeing this for a second time, after the Rays clinched a playoff berth late last September at Rogers Centre, and Montoyo wanted them to see something.
“What it feels like to celebrate and beat a good team,” Montoyo said. “Great season for our kids and a great lesson here to see what the playoffs are all about.”